I had not heard of Fear of Flying (1973) by Erica Jong before I saw it on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I subsequently learned that Jong’s book was controversial for its racy sex; that it involves the sexual escapades of the protagonist in Europe; and it was important in second-wave feminism. Once I began reading, though, it was not what I expected. I found the protagonist grating at times, and the plot felt rambling. But it also grew on me as I read. Jong is very smart and witty, and I ended up highlighting many passages in this book.
The novel begins with Isadora Wing sitting on an airplane with her husband Bennett, on the way to a psychoanalyst’s conference in Vienna. Isadora has had psychoanalysts helping her work through her problems since she was thirteen, and Bennett is one as well. Isadora is restless and feeling trapped. She says she is in pursuit of the “zipless fuck”–the kind of sex you can have with a stranger on a train. When she meets yet another psychoanalyst, Adrian, at the conference, she is finally tempted to forego her marriage vows and take off with him. The book follows Isadora on her European vacation, with flashbacks to other significant relationships of her life as she tries to figure out what she wants. One flashback relationship was with her crazy, first husband, Brian, who almost succeeded in bringing Isadora down with him. The man that followed, Charlie, was a much calmer, but irritating personality who left her in Europe.
In some ways, Erica Jong’s writing reminds me of Lena Dunham and Girls. Jong is a well-educated New Yorker from artsy parents. Her book seems to be intensely personal and sometimes feels narcissistic (which is what initially turned me off from the character of Isadora). However, Jong is also honest and brave in discussing Isadora’s thoughts and struggles, even as it pushes conventional boundaries on women and sex.
I found myself going back and forth as I read this book. I was sometimes irritated by Jong’s persistent focus on psychoanalysis, and Isadora was often unlikable. The men she fell for were mostly unappealing to me, so it was difficult to relate to her. However, more often than not, Jong would throw in a sentence or two, or change the subject to something that resonated with me. One of Isadora’s primary battles was her wish for independence warring with her need to have a man to feel safe. Isadora could not live without a man. I think I am on the other side of that equation: giving up my independence is terrifying.
Fear of Flying is definitely worth reading, it is a feminist classic after all, and I’m glad I read it. However, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. At times it felt dated and the plot is more thoughtful than fast paced. I’ll end this review with a small number of my favorite passages.
“Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge, no danger.” (7)
“Until women started writing books there was only one side of the story.” (22)
“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead.” (77)
“But who was the man I really wanted? All I knew was that I had been desperately searching for him from the age of sixteen on.” (90)
“I languished in utter frustration, thinking that the subjects I knew about were ‘trivial’ and ‘feminine’–while the subjects I knew nothing of were ‘profound’ and ‘masculine.'” (114)
“I would become servile, cloying, saccharinely sweet: the whole package of lies that passes in the world as femininity.” (123)
“What was I supposed to do? If I fought him off like an ordinary rapist, I’d offend him.” (236)
“Because if no man loves me, I have no identity.” (269)
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